Exclusive: Terry Jones on life inside the Flying Circus

❉ We Are Cult’s James Gent in conversation with Monty Python’s Terry Jones, published for the first time.

I always wanted Python to go in that linear direction, ‘Ripping Yarns’ was the logical extension of that, and I would have loved Python to have done ‘Ripping Yarns’ with the full cast.

Bittersweet news for comedy fans everywhere earlier this year, when the announcement that Monty Python’s Terry Jones was to receive the BAFTA Cymru lifetime achievement award, was coupled with the news that Jones had been diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia, a variant of Frontotemporal Dementia.

As well as having written and performed in all 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974), Terry Jones’ credits include writing and directing the films ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (With Terry Gilliam, 1975), ‘Monty Python’s Life Of Brian’ (1979), ‘Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life’ (1983), ‘Personal Services’ (1987), ‘Erik The Viking’ (1989), ‘Wind In The Willows’ (1996) and ‘Absolutely Anything’ (2015).

Other film credits include the screenplay of the much-loved fantasy musical ‘Labyrinth’ (1986), directed by Jim Henson, produced by George Lucas and starring David Bowie.

A noted historian and scholar, Jones has written two academically acclaimed books about Medieval writer Geoffrey Chaucer, and written and presented a number of historical documentary serials; he has also  gone on to compose operas and write short stories.

Earlier this year, Jones presented the economics documentary ‘Boom Bust Boom’, co-written by Jones and veteran economist and entrepreneur Theo Kocken.

Back in 2012, after corresponding over a long period of time, I secured an interview with Terry Jones as part of my research for an indepth history of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. This took place in Terry’s local pub in Highgate, and as a We Are Cult exclusive, we are proud to present highlights from this extensive conversation.

As we grabbed our drinks, Terry cautioned, “In games of rugby I can’t remember anything, after ‘remember when you caught the ball going down the wing there… it’s all a bit of a blur” but what follows is a surprisingly insightful chat about the early years of Jones’ career, inside the big top of the Flying Circus…

On set for ‘Boom Bust Boom’ (Bill & Ben Productions, 2015). Photo: Nick Rutter

How did your television career start?

I’d accepted a job at Anglia Television as a copywriter, and I think that would have destroyed me.  So I was about to go to Norwich and I’d written lots of letters to everybody and Frank Muir’s office and said, ‘Would I like to do an interview with Frank Muir?’ – Frank Muir was then in charge of Light Entertainment (Comedy) and Tom Sloan was in charge of LE overall – so Frank Muir said, ‘Well Jones, just come in and see what happens in Light Entertainment…’ and I always meant to ask him why he asked me to come in and I never did. Then I went to do a director’s course with Ian Davidson.

I had an office in the doughnut, the TV Centre, two desks, two typewriters, FOUR telephones and I had no job description. I had to invent my job so I pretended to be a script editor or something like that, so I wrote scripts for Kathy Kirby, who was a regular on the BBC, the Billy Cotton Band Show and Ken Dodd.  The first thing I’d got on television was the Policemans’ walking race – On your marks, get set, go! (plods) – and I had to demonstrate that to Ken Dodd, on the sixth floor, the bosses’ floor!

Then, I kind of thought my time was running out in LE because I didn’t know what I was doing, really. I then took a course to become a studio manager…

You’d worked with Michael Palin on a series of inserts for shows like ‘The Late Show’, ‘Twice A Fortnight’ and soforth, which are now in the archives…

I insisted on getting the film from the BBC before Tony Palmer wiped it.

With regards to ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set, you must have loved the Bonzos as kindred spirits?

The Bonzos were great, My Pink half of the drainpipe, all that!

David Jason’s ‘Captain Fantastic’ off DNYAS were film productions, did that reflect your ambitions for Python?

Oh, yes, we wrote ‘Captain Fantastic’ and they never did what we asked them to do, so we were very pissed off about that.

Humphrey Barclay introduced Terry Gilliam into the mix for the second series of ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’; what were your first impressions?

Yes, Gilliam came in in the second season…  Originally he’d come into script meetings and say “HUH RHUR HUR” and eventually we said, oh just leave these!

How, as you remember it, did Python come to be?

John Cleese phoned Mike Palin up, and that was the instigation.  He phoned up after we did the Complete and Utter History, saying well you won’t be doing any more of us, would you like to work with me, well if Terry Jones and Eric Ide and Terry Gilliam can come.

Tell us about your vision for Monty Python’s Flying Circus…

I was always totally concerned about the finished product and how things looked. I can remember the first time that I realised that direction was very important was when we were doing ‘The Complete and Utter History of Britain’ – we’d imagined the thing as cowboys and Indians, for the Battle of Ha Fleur, and the Frenchmen would be on the cliff bluff, silhouetted against the sky and it would be a dry, arid place.  Morris Murphy chose a spot in a gentle, rolling countryside and I thought, we’ve got to make sure the location matches what we wrote.

What about that famous ‘stream of consciousness’, or manic flow as you described it?

While we were prepping the first few episodes, I somehow knew that this was our Big Chance. It didn’t feel like a big breakthrough at the time, mind, because there was no feedback.  Then I saw Spike Milligan’s ‘Q5’ show and thought: ‘Drat! He’s done it!’ He’d broken up the sketch show format. He had sketches that don’t finish and ones that just transform into something else. He’d demonstrated that we’re writing in clichés – the 30 second blackout or the 3 minute sketch with beginning, middle and punchline.

I was desperate to think of some new format for the show that would make it distinctive.  Then as I was walking up the stairs at my old home, in 28 Ryde Road in Claygate, I suddenly remembered Terry Gilliam’s animation of ‘Elephants’ for ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’. How Terry had said it was just a chain of consciousness…

And I suddenly thought we could link the sketches together with Terry’s animation, the transitions, the flow of consciousness, for DNAYS, well lets take that and apply it to Python, we can do that, linking this stuff with TG’s animation and so I rang Mike and Terry and they said, ‘Well, thats a great idea’ but when we presented it to the others, they were less interested.

I remember John saying that the main thing was to have funny material and that’s all that counts, or something to that effect. The Cambridge people didn’t want to know about that flow of consciousness.  They considered the sketches would be the thing.  So that’s why the first series takes time to strike its form. It was just that half the Pythons weren’t interested in the flow of the show. I think by the end of the first series they’d realised the advantages!  Once the first series was over, they got on board. So it’s less to do with John Howard Davies directing and more to do with lack of interest from the Cambridge lot. I was very concerned about the editing of the shows, but the Cambridge people didn’t want to know.

What was your initial reaction to how the shows went out, Terry?

I guess we were experimenting with comedy. We were sometimes a bit disappointed with the reaction in the studio but reassured when the programmes went out.

The Pythons’ production manager, Roger Last, once said that the BBC was “one of the last left-wing monoliths”.

That’s right – although it had a member of MI5 working in the BBC… Scotched my brother Nigel’s career, he was outspoken left wing and he was marked down as a shop steward in the union at the time, and marked down with a Christmas Tree on his file.

Tell us a little about the location filming…

I’d always go on the recce with Ian and see how it was.

Originally, the filming was based around the ‘stockbroker belt’ but you went on from Walton-on-Thames, to Bristol, Bradford, Jersey and Glencoe?

Ian MacNaughton was keen to get away and film up north – Yorkshire, Scotland anywhere but London. I’d never thought of that as being his contribution to the show. But it was.

Your chief film cameraman was Jimmy Balfour, right? From the old school – Roger Last remembers: “ Jimmy did a lot, and he wasn’t amused by any of it.  At all!”

Oh, Jimmy Balfour, oh, Jimmy Balfour, yes… (groans) Well, Jimmy Balfour always had direct sum on us, nothing fancy, and I always had to go through Ian MacNaughton and suggest things, ‘Can we do it like THIS…’

How about your director, Ian MacNaughton? Roger Last recalls: “Terry Jones in particular, didn’t really think Ian was doing the best job of the filming.  Of course, Terry eventually became a film director himself, and he thought, ‘Hold on, he’s not getting the best angles, he hasn’t quite got what we thought when we wrote it…’”

I may underrate Ian MacNaughton’s direction but I had a very strong feeling, I couldn’t resist telling Ian what to do, really. But only on film stuff.  In the studio, I had no control at all.

How about the heads of comedy at the Beeb, Terry?

Michael Mills just left us alone once he knew we wouldn’t spend too much money.

We’d never have done it now because I remember going up to a committee of Tom Sloan and Michael Mills and them saying, what’s it gonna be about, well we don’t know, is there gonna be any music in it, well we dunno, who’s it appealing to, ooh, we don’t know! what are you gonna call it, well we haven’t got a title! There was a big, big discussion and Well, we can only give you thirteen episodes.  We’d never get Python on now, there’s too much top-heavy bureaucracy.

As for the famously censored ‘Proust’ sketch..? With the entrant whose hobbies were strangling animals, golf and masturbation?

Strangely, strangling animals was fine!

Tell me, did you ever imagine that Python would become such a huge cult in the States?

Mike Palin and I went to America in 1970, on the basis that we thought Python wouldn’t happen in America so we wanted to see America, so we got a Discount 50 ticket which meant that if you went to SIX places in America, you got fifty percent off your ticket!  We wnet to New York, we went to New Orleans, we went to Albuquerque, on the basis that it had a funny name, and then we went to Houston because we thought that’s where the rocket took off, all that was there was offices! Grand Canyons, Los Vegas, Los Angeles. so we thought it would never Go in the states.  It was absolutely embraced in the states, and you wouldn’t think it would travel.

Python was anti-satire, but you had your own targets, right?

We all agreed on what the targets were, really.  We all had similar backgrounds. I think, in the 1960s, a new world was going to happen, and IT DIDN’T.

Between the two main writing teams – yourself and Mike Palin, and John Cleese and Graham Chapman, how did it balance out?

John & Graham came in with the really savage pieces and Eric came in with the word play,

Just when did you realise Python was becoming a hit?

We only knew it was going to be a success after show four. It didn’t feel like a big breakthrough at the time, because there was no feedback.

Then kids started writing in to the BBC, and we got ushered into Tom Sloan’s office and got told ‘Lots of children are writing in about the show…’ and that’s when we first started noticing there was a following.

In the writing room, did anyone ever come up with a sketch and you’d think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that?’

I just thought, it’s just so funny, I never thought I wish I’d thought of that!  We were essentially writing for each other, we wanted to entertain each other.

Any failures or successes?

The dead parrot sketch came out better than I expected!

Rather famously, the first episode’s studio audience was not ‘switched-on’ young people…

The first show’s audience were old people that thought they were coming to see a circus – and they were VERY bemused!

All 45 episodes of Python were performed before a live audience. Notwithstanding the disruptions of film and animation inserts, how did that work in your favour?

We would have been lost without an audience, we tried to do the thing as a live show so the sketches would happen and then the animation would happen in sequence, but sometimes, like, I can remember especially The Cycling Tour when my brother (who was in the studio audience) said he didn’t think the show had worked at all. This was because we’d filmed various bits not in order…and things like the CASUALTY sign falling on the patients, and the trolley falling apart were shot as discrete incidents…  It was only when Ian and I put them together in a certain rhythm that they worked.

What’s your recollections of your more abstruse sketches, the ones that confounded audiences such as the ‘French rubbish dump’ Godard piss-take? They’re clever, but more interesting than laugh-out-loud funny.

I suspect we were hoping they would be funny, but were proved wrong. I guess we were experimenting with comedy.

You mainly wrote with Michael Palin; what was your writing style?

Originally we started writing together, for ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’ but by the time Python came we’d separate and we’d both go off and write something individually and we’d get together three days later and say, ‘What have you got?’ Mike would read out the Spanish Inquisition and I’d elaborate it. We’d pitch and toss ideas, that’s what we did.  Spanish Inquisition was Mike’s idea and I extended it.  The Spam sketch was mine.

We’d go off for two weeks, we’d have a meeting, discuss about things and then we’d go away and write for a couple of weeks… I think it was half the show. I think we started off doing half the show and then half the show again. Series 1 was half and half but after that we wrote the whole thing, it was the most wonderful moment when you knew you’d hear something REALLY funny.

When we read it out at the script meetings, John and Graham would take over a sketch that Michael and I did, and that would go two ways. silly Walks – Cleese rang us up and said and we’ve got  a little thing called silly walks, and I think he thought no one would ever go near it…

For the third series of Python, John Cleese got fed up. Again, Roger Last recalls the ‘Newhaven Lifeboat’ sketch being a deal breaker, as he told We Are Cult:

John generally didn’t like filming.  One, because it took him to awful places where he’d have to stand out in the rain, get cold, get bored, ‘What are we doing here?’   Also, they were hardly getting paid any extra for filming, they got a tiny little allowance, to them it was peanuts, so it was an annoyance to John.

He was good at it, when he did it he was professional, but he’d rather not have done it.  The others all loved it, but he got more and more pissed off about having to come out and do filming, and the one that really swung it, in my view, was when we had to do the day on the Newhaven lifeboat.

He was very sick, he was seasick.  We were in the harbour and there was a lot of turbulence.  John was sick, and we had one or two dressers on board, costume dressers, and they were slightly camp, and they were okay, yet he, John, was sick and couldn’t stand it. And he was in drag as Mrs So-and-so, and I think that was the turning point where he thought, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’

How about that, Terry?

Well, I was seasick and John was seasick – I can imagine that being a nadir. But John was desperate to get away from (writing with) Graham anyway, because of his drinking habits.

I got on with Graham quite well, but we got a bit fed up with him when it got to take 26, in the studio.  He went to take fifty six, and the audience laughed because he got it right.  We did some ‘Mr. Neutron’ scenes (in series four), we did most of ‘Mr.Neutron’ together.

Talking of Series Four, it anticipated the more linear form you took in the Python films, right?

I always wanted Python to go in that linear direction, ‘Ripping Yarns’ was the logical extension of that, and I would have loved Python to have done ‘Ripping Yarns’ with the full cast.

Series four of Python only ran for six episodes. Would you have done more?

I would have done a few more but I don’t know, I can’t remember, my memory is that they didn’t ask us to do any more.

Who were your comedy influences, Terry?

Buster Keaton influenced me very much – he made comedy look beautiful and I always appreciated his input into comedy – and I was a big fan of Jacques Tati.

Any final thoughts?

Do you know, I’ve been so lucky in my life! I’ve just been so lucky!

❉ Terry Jones’ 2016 documentary ‘Boom Bust Boom‘, co-written by Jones and veteran economist and entrepreneur Theo Kocken, is available on iTunes. A Bill And Ben Production, it incorporates puppetry by filmmakers Jonny & Will and animation by Arthur Cox and Moth Collective. You can read a review by James Gent for Daily Waffle here.

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